Frozen Berries Recalled after Hepatitis A Outbreak

An outbreak of hepatitis A that has sickened 87 people in eight U.S. states prompted the recall of an organic frozen berry mix, according to federal agencies. Townsend Farms Inc., of Fairview, Ore., on June 4 announced a voluntary recall on the product, which was sold at Costco and Harris Teeter stores, “out of an abundance of caution.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that the infections “may be linked with consumption of a contaminated product.” However, the hepatitis A virus has not been found in samples of the product in testing to date, according to the manufacturer and a spokesman for Costco.

The frozen berry and pomegranate mix, sold as “Townsend Farms Organic Antioxidant Blend” at Costco stores and as “Harris Teeter Organic Antioxidant Berry Blend” at that grocery chain, contained products originating from the U.S., Argentina, Chile, and Turkey, the CDC says. The outbreak strain of hepatitis A, genotype 1B, was identified in a 2013 outbreak in Europe linked to frozen berries and to a 2012 outbreak in Canada related to a frozen berry blend with pomegranate seeds from Egypt, according to the CDC. There is “no evidence at this time that the outbreaks are related,” the CDC says.

Craig Wilson, vice president for food safety and quality assurance at Costco Wholesale, the membership warehouse club based in Issaquah, Wash., says the hepatitis A virus has not been found to date in samples of the product tested by Costco. “We’ve been looking at samples since last week,” he said in an interview June 7. “All have been negative.”

Wilson says the company has contacted some 250,000 members who bought the product. “We’ve made two phone calls to our members,” says Wilson, who is also a member of the Food Quality & Safety Editorial Advisory Panel. “We’re also taking care of the vaccination costs for people who get the appropriate vaccination, and we’re providing vaccinations in our Costco pharmacies for people who could have eaten the item in the last 14 days.”

In its most recent update on the outbreak at the time of press, June 10, the CDC says 87 cases of acute hepatitis A infection may be linked with consumption of the product. An epidemiologic investigation of 68 cases revealed that illness onset dates ranged from mid-March to June in people from two to 84 years of age. Seventy percent of those interviewed reported eating the product, in all cases purchased from Costco stores. No cases have been identified in which the product was bought at Harris Teeter stores.

The FDA has begun inspecting the processing facilities of Townsend Farms, according to its most recent statement on the outbreak, posted June 5. The FDA is finalizing a protocol to test berries for the hepatitis A virus and will be testing samples related to the outbreak, the statement says.

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